Punk rock was all about stripping away the excess of mainstream classic rock. Hardcore was all about moving past even the constrictions of the punk movement. This movement wasn't chronicled in any broad cultural way but played itself out in inky self-printed zines and curbside club confrontations. 1983 was a moment of great promise in this small community, with everyone sharing a dissatisfaction with the status quo of 'regular' music while simultaneously sensing some sort of zeitgeist shift.
Husker Du came to the stage like marauders intent on defiling the sacred cows of non-conformity. Oh, we're not supposed to have guitar solos? Well just listen to Bob Mould shred on a flying V and know that Eddie Van Halen wasn't the only guitar god slinging hash that year. We're supposed to have mohawks and wear leather jackets? Just look at us in our midwestern shit-kicking get-ups. Drummers only sing in Night Ranger and The Eagles? Watch Grant Hart howl and pound.
Double album rock operas are bloated and pretentious?
Get a load of this, fuckers. 'Zen Arcade' is 4 sides of experimental, emotionally wrenching, loosely themed, bone-crushingly heavy and tragic music. When word got out that Husker Du was releasing a DOUBLE album, the hardcore community got its collective knickers in a twist.
When you look at the cover, you already know that this isn't your basic 28 minutes of sloganeering and teenage anger. The stacked cars of the junkyard. The crude colorization. The two slightly stooped figures. An iconic image. One that perfectly captures the alienation and decay contained therein.
In an oft told story, Husker Du had been spurned by Twin/Tone Records, the Minneapolis record label famous for The Replacements. They fled the local scene and signed with SST, the mother of all '80's indy labels, which was owned and operated by Greg Ginn who doubled as the creative force behind Black Flag. This was a strange union of midwest gay art house noise and sun soaked Southern California cock rock.
The 'gay' part of this story mirrors the strange oversight much of frat house America had in ignoring Freddie Mercury and even the name of his band. Both writers in Husker Du were gay but this never was discussed until well after the band broke up. American Hardcore, for all its supposed liberality and progressive thinking, was highly homophobic and aggressive.
It is also important to consider the conditions under which Husker Du recorded 'Zen Arcade'. They flew to Redondo Beach. They did a bunch of speed. They recorded 25 songs in 40 hours. They mixed 25 songs in 45 hours. At the end of 85 hours, they'd spent $3,200 and they had a 4-sided monster whose reverberation is still being felt today.
Most of the songs clock in between 1:45 to 2:20. What this does is lend epic status to the songs that stretch out even to 3:30 and beyond.
We follow a disaffected teen as he runs away from home. This is never explicit in the lyrics but it has come to be common knowledge among fans of the band and album. The opener is 'Something I Learned Today' which careens around just the way a kid storming out of his house might. It moves directly into 'Broken Home, Broken Heart' which lets us know how our journey is starting. The tone shifts with the third song, a shimmering acoustic chamber of regret by Hart called 'Never Talking To You Again'. The strange convergence of a punk anger and a folk sensibility makes for a tragic little interlude.
Things start to disintegrate and fracture here. Mould sings of 'Chartered Trips' which could be the actual trip the kid is on or a drug reference. Either way his surroundings have ceased to be familiar. They are obliterated with 'Dreams Reoccurring' which is an eerie wordless collage of piano and feedback. 'Indecision Time' is a buzzsaw of confusion and 'Hare Krsna' shows us how a vulnerable lost soul could find comfort in such an erasure of a personal trajectory.
And that's just Side 1.
During Side 2 the journey becomes increasingly treacherous. He moves 'Beyond the Threshhold' through 'Pride', 'The Biggest Lie, 'Masochism World' and eventually finds himself 'Standing By the Sea'. This song is a perfect Act ender, in that we've followed this flight, which has seemed to move from precariousness through false revelation and winds up in what ought to be a contemplative peace. But looking at the ocean is not a redemptive force. In fact, the waves of feedback create a mounting anxiety which threaten to sweep us away.
The sound, emotion, and energy of Side 3 are all at a higher emotional maturity. He has gone through the crucible of adolescence and has emerged scarred but somehow glorious. In 'Somewhere' which kicks the side off, Hart howls into his past and tries to imagine a place where 'the dirt is washed off with the rain/where there's happiness instead of pain'. Two songs later, Mould turns the view outward as the narrator starts to place himself in a larger context. 'Newest Industry' throws us into a soylent-green type dystopia where individuals are sucked into a machine that uses them without regard for their humanity. The familial anger of the teen who fled his dysfunctional household has realized that his parents are merely products of the society which birthed them. The side ends on an absurd note, as 'The Tooth Fairy and The Princess' proves that fairy tales have become obsolete in a world that chews up and spits out its young.
Side 4 is where Husker Du project 'Zen Arcade' past noble experiment into the land of genius and generosity.
'Turn On The News' is their finest moment on record. The narrator has synthesized all of his experiences into a new sort of consciousness. He is no longer trapped by his own story. He has looked past his own pain and sees how much trouble has befallen all of us. Hart screams for us to 'Turn On The News' as Mould shreds a guitar into an unholy alliance between Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Band and The Clash. When you stop to think that this is essentially a live track, your sense of the album all of a sudden shifts into overdrive. This is a perfectly articulated world view.
And then they BLOW IT ALL TO HELL AND BEYOND. Earlier there had been the short instrumental experiment of 'Dreams Reoccurring'. Well, when dreams reoccur, you wind up with 'Reoccurring Dreams'. This is the 'Dark Side of the Moon' of the hardcore world. Thirteen minutes and forty-seven seconds of backwards looped screaming feedback guitar, piano plinking and crashing cymbals and drum rolls. When you commit to the whole piece it is like being dragged into a fun-house mirror where you can't see yourself, you only see shapes and figures that have totemic and symbolic meaning. Moments happen and disappear. Then they reappear in different forms. Your sense of narrative and narration is stripped completely away. They make you forget that they are a three piece power trio. Your perception of them will not hold.
If 'Turn On The News' is the knockout punch, 'Reoccurring Dreams' is a sick and twisted victory lap around a stadium that is tearing itself apart.
After this album came out, everyone knew that hardcore wouldn't be able to hide its light under a bushel for much longer. The world was waiting.